John Middlemas of Willard, Mo., shown here after enlisting in the U.S. Navy in World War II Courtesy Brennan Gilmore
John Middlemas of Willard, Mo., shown here after enlisting in the U.S. Navy in World War II Courtesy Brennan Gilmore

Local

WWII veteran, 97, who knelt for NFL players, thought he’d seen everything — until this

By Joe Robertson

jrobertson@kcstar.com

September 25, 2017 02:35 PM

UPDATED September 25, 2017 03:30 PM

John Middlemas, the 97-year-old World War II veteran Twitter sensation, thought he’d seen just about everything that comes with social justice activism.

But Sunday morning he posed on his knee in support of the NFL football players’ freedom to protest during the National Anthem. His daughter snapped the photo and his grandson tweeted it with a simple quote from Middlemas:

“Those kids have every right to protest.”

My grandpa is a 97 year-old WWII vet & Missouri farmer who wanted to join w/ those who #TakeaKnee: "those kids have every right to protest." pic.twitter.com/LurCj7SLUB

— Brennan Gilmore (@brennanmgilmore) September 24, 2017

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

Now the man who served on U.S. Navy submarines, who was floating just off the coast of Japan when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima, who protested the Vietnam War, who marched for Martin Luther King and defended his sons’ right to wear long hair in high school has learned about the peculiar power of social media.

“He has friends on Facebook now all over the world,” his daughter, Maile Auterson told The Star Monday. “Last night he asked me, ‘Am I dreaming?”

She has been handling phone calls and correspondence for her father who was at her side in her Springfield, Mo., home Monday morning, helping him share his reactions.

The traditional measures of his celebrity Monday came with interview requests from the morning network talk shows like the Today Show, and international requests through the BBC and others.

But today’s viral measures are tallied in the response to his grandson’s tweet, which by mid-day Monday had been retweeted more than 136,000 times, gathered more than 356,000 “likes” and generated some 4,500 comments.

Auterson has even helped Middlemas correspond with unexpected praise from celebrities like the rapper T.I., who shared the post with his 7.9 million followers.

“I’ve been playing his (T.I.’s) music for my dad,” Auterson said. “And my dad said for me to tell him that he’ll dance for him — but that he better hurry up because he’s only going to live until he’s 125.”

Middlemas is always telling jokes, making people happy, Auterson said. But he also carries a heaviness and a knack for making people uncomfortable in poignant moments.

When people ask about his service in both World War II and the Korean War, sometimes tears will come to his eyes, Auterson said.

The weight of war comes over him, she said, when he remembers hearing the news from his commander in service off the coast of Kyushu, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945, that “something big has happened,” that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

“He knows the gravity of what happens,” she said.

He objected to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He supported the Civil Rights movement and continues to do so, when he was the oldest marcher at the age of 94 in 2013 when people gathered in Springfield, Mo., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s march on Washington, D.C., and the “I Have a Dream” speech.

His grandson who posted the gone-viral tweet, Brennan Gilmore of Virginia, has also lived a life marked by social justice activism, like many in the family among Middlemas’ six children and 32 grandchildren.

“From an early age he was a profound inspiration for his faith and his commitment to justice,” said Gilmore, who took up his role in public service as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, most recently as the deputy chief minister at the U.S. Embassy in the Central Africa Republic.

Middlemas was often a bit out of step with the mostly conservative communities in southeastern Missouri, where he once insisted at his son’s high school that they should be allowed to wear their hair long (in the 1960s), and that all that matters is “that they study,” Auterson said.

But all along, and again Monday, Middlemas shared his enduring message, saying, “You’ve got to get close and love people.”

He’s hoping the reaction to his picture will help break some of the tension eating at the nation, Auterson said.

“We’re loving on how nice people have been to us,” she said. “It gives us hope for our country and for people coming together.”